Teacher Tenure Is Important to the Educational System


Devin Martens-Olzman

No one wants a pedophile to teach their children. No one wants an incompetent teacher running a classroom. Teachers who do anything illegal—like drug dealing, molestation, theft, and so on—can easily be fired, even if they have tenure. In the United States teachers are tenured after a period of one to seven years, depending on the state. Teacher tenure detractors argue it is too hard to fire the “dead weight,” says Laura Malcolm, an English teacher at El Molino High School in Northern California. However, although job security is not widespread among the American work force, teachers deserve a special distinction given their history and profession.

The income of the average teacher is drastically low compared to that of other jobs. According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employees (NACE) the average national starting salary of teachers is $30,377. However, computer programmers start their jobs at $43,635, and registered nurses start at $45,570. NACE’s survey and analysis showed that these fields required similar training and responsibilities as teachers. Additionally, NACE found that teachers get raises at a much lower rate than other professions. Clearly, teachers aren’t going into the profession for the money, but they do need some incentive aside from personal passion to apply for the teaching profession. This is where tenure comes in.

The structure of the high school system also creates a space for teacher tenure, especially in regard to freedom of speech and innovations within the teaching profession. Other professions ask for innovation within the workplace, offering salary raises or promotions for ideas that work well. Of course this comes with firings or layoffs for bad ideas. However, since there is not a very high ceiling of salary advancement within the teaching profession, teachers would be afraid of innovation in the classroom because the risk would be losing their job. Teacher tenure allows teachers to speak their mind without fear of replacement by the administration, which also lessens political constraints that superintendents or principals may want to place on the teachers.

Corruption from administration is another reason to keep teacher tenure. Administrations could pressure teachers to let students graduate who may not have done well enough, simply to improve the school’s graduation percentage or because of nepotistic circumstances. Additionally, if tenure is abolished, administrations could fire older, more expensive teachers in lieu of younger, inexpensive ones—a common strategy for corporations to reduce cost. This lack of job security would further decrease the allure of the teaching profession, and in my academic career, I have also noticed that the more experienced teachers are better.

There are some concerns about teacher tenure that have merit. Teachers who can be referred to as “dead weight” are the teachers who take advantage of their job security so they can do the minimum in the classroom and not get fired. You’ve all had the teacher who only shows movies, or perhaps the one who grades your workbook by making sure you’ve written in it instead of by looking at what you’ve written. This is a problem of motivation, and admittedly the current tenure situation has allowed some teachers to take advantage of it. However, teacher tenure is necessary to ensure correct instruction, so perhaps a modification of tenure would benefit both teachers and students.

According to teachertenure.org, the probationary period for teachers in California is two years, after which they are tenured. After these two years, teachers can still get fired, but it is just difficult to do so. Perhaps teachers who consistently show extreme apathy toward their profession can be put on a semi-probationary period, where their instruction will be closely monitored to ensure their motivation to their job. Clearly, something needs to change, but abolishing tenure is not a good idea.

Abolishing tenure will not fix the problem of “dead weight.” The occasional apathetic teacher should not make the entire system crash, because most teachers are genuinely there to teach to their full potential. Tenure’s benefits ultimately outweigh its pitfalls, and the inadequacies of a few should not affect the hard work of many.